I was a child when I asked my mother why we did not celebrate Christmas like our neighbors and best friends, the Barolos. I could see their tree glistening through their picture window, which I'd help decorate each year with Ivory Snow for snow, and trees painted green touched with snow at their tips, a Santa Claus on the roof top of a house. And when we were done with our work, Hilda, the mother, would give us the chocolate chip cookies she'd just baked. You get the picture.
My mother said "We're Jewish. We don't believe in Christmas."
"What do we believe," I asked.
"The messiah hasn't come yet."
And that was the difference between Christians and Jews.
Sometimes I'd go with the Barolos to church because I wanted to know who this messiah was whose birth was so celebrated. My mother would make sure to tell me "Don't kneel. Don't bow or bend or stand. Just sit there. Remember, it's not our God."
The church was filled with songs and everyone knew the words. Colors from the stained glass windows shifted over the faces of the people praying. The constant motion of standing and sitting and kneeling and walking to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ was an eloquent ballet, and I love to dance. Best of all, though, was Jesus. Though he was on the cross, a radiance seemed to emanate from him. Stoic. Calm in the midst of agony. I wanted that strength.
I decided to become a nun. It was my calling to love all humanity, to turn the other cheek, to follow in Jesus' footsteps. I would live in a monastery and talk with God all day long while birds sang in the trees. It would be easy to keep my room clean--there would only be a cot and a chair and no choices to make about what to wear. I watched The Nun's Story and decided I'd go to Africa to help the heathens find God and health. I saw The Robe and thought I'd go in search of Jesus' chalice. I saw The Last Supper and thought I'd become a painter, living in my cloister, painting pictures of Jesus on the cross. I learned every Christmas carol, and at Easter I planned to go to that place in Maine where the sun first rises on U.S. soil. I'd finally found a model for how to have a relationship with God.
I didn't become a nun. Instead, I married a man who was an altar boy, whose family is devoutly Catholic. They went to church each Sunday, helped the poor, the refugees, and the elderly. They believed in the Trinity and kindness and heaven and hell, with everything clearly laid out. Each of my husband's siblings and each of their children kept the faith, married within it, and all except two nephews still live within five miles of each other.
But my husband had rejected religion when he was twenty-three. He was the only one of his siblings to leave Montreal. We live in Boston, which is close enough so that I thought I'd be able to raise our daughter as a Catholic and participate in his family's holidays. I was even going to convert to Catholicism. Why not? My family never really participated in Judaism, and I knew nothing about the religion, but I wanted to belong somewhere. My brother had married a Catholic woman, and my sister denied her Jewish heritage as a lot of baggage too heavy for her. We live in a Christian country. Christmas is a national pastime. The Ten Commandments are now being put up in courtrooms. People walk around with huge crosses around their necks. "It's the Christian thing to do" is said so often people don't even hear what's being said anymore. Coming from secular Judaism, I knew more about Christianity than about Judaism, but that didn't matter, for wasn't Judaism just like Christianity, anyway? After all, we are all a part of the Judeo-Chrisitan tradition, right?
Because my husband had stopped believing in a god, and refused to let our daughter be brought up in the Catholic tradition, I checked out our local Unitarian church. Not enough spirituality. I checked out the Quakers. Not enough structure. Finally, there was no alternative: I turned to Judaism. And I have learned, over these past ten years, that there is no such thing as Judeo-Christian. True, both religions accept the Ten Commandments, but traditional Jews have 613 commandments to follow! And that's just the most blatant difference!
Over these past ten years my eyes have been opened to a world most Jews don't see. It is the world of practicing Judaism, a world so far removed from anything Judeo-Christian that it is incomprehensible to people who do not participate. The religion is based on action, not belief. Where in Christianity a belief in Jesus as the son of God is primary, in Judaism it is not necessary to believe in God. As we say during our Saturday service, the world depends on three things: Torah (the first five books of Moses), worship, and acts of loving kindness. Not belief, but acts.
Eilu d'varaim, a prayer said for warming up before the morning service, lists the things one is obligated to do: honor one's parents, celebrate with the wedding couple, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, make peace where there is strife. The final line, though, is the crux of Judaism: "But the study of Torah is equal to them all because it leads to them all." Judaism is not a religion of faith, but of study and of action. One does not have to believe in God, but one is obligated to do the mitzvot (commandments), which include saying 100 blessings every day. Liberal Jews are more likely to observe only the ethical commandments, the ones that speak to relationships between people, leaving one's relationship to God up to God and the individual. And when we study Torah each Shabbat (Sabbath) morning and read about Abraham or Jacob or Miriam, we don't look to them as role models. Indeed, one midrash (story to explicate the Bible) says, "When you get to heaven, God isn't going to ask you 'Why weren't you as good as Moses?' Rather God will say 'Why weren't you the best you you could be?'"
And ultimately Judaism is about community. The ethical laws we are commanded to follow demand we take care of the poor, the sick, the widow, demand we live in relationship with others, demand we live in this world. Our clergy are encouraged to marry before they finish rabbinical school so that when they work in the world as spiritual leaders, they will have to do so from the standpoint of family. They will know what it means to have to get the children ready for school, or the dinner on the table, or the shopping done, all the while having to do their job. It's hard to be holy while diapering a baby, but it's human.
I don't bring up these differences because I want to cause dissension between the two religions; rather, as often happens, the minority religion has been subsumed under the aegis of the majority, so that few people, including Jews themselves, understand Judaism. I think my sister chooses not to affiliate herself as a Jew because she has no comprehension of all the beauty and majesty and mystery contained in the baggage! There are less than 12 million Jews worldwide, and only 10% of them follow Orthodox Judaism. Most Jews are unaffiliated and know very little about the religion. This lack of knowledge makes it easy for us to define ourselves in terms laid out by the majority. It puts Judaism into a tenuous position that can become more tenable only if we allow ourselves to understand Judaism beyond its presentation in this Christian world.